Ingeborg van Teeseling

The Program Noting the Quiet Everyday Acts of Heroes

Despite the headlines, and even our experience, heroes quietly move among us. Now, one project is looking to illuminate the invaluable (and often unheard) work they do. 


My daughter is very pregnant now and is moving like Dumbo without the ears. She travels on public transport a lot, and because most people only have eyes for their phones, she spends most of those trips standing in corridors. But once in a while, somebody sees her and offers her their seat. Often, they are older gentlemen, still raised to treat women, and especially mothers, with respect and kindness. When that happens, it makes her feel slightly embarrassed, but also grateful. And, interestingly enough, more prone to paying it forward.

So, on a day when somebody has been nice to her, she usually does something to help out somebody else. It seems to be a simple formula, but one we haven’t, maybe, paid enough attention to. That, at least, seems to be the reason why psychologist Philip Zimbardo has developed HIP: the Heroic Imagination Program. To change the world one quiet hero, one good deed, at a time.

Zimbardo is an interesting man. Born to a poor Sicilian family in the ghetto of the South Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s, he was confronted with the best and the worst in humanity from an early age. In his teens, when reports of the Holocaust reached the United States, he started to wonder how all of this could have happened. What had turned good people into monsters who had been more than willing to murder their Jewish (and other) neighbors?

A smart boy, Zimbardo went to university, where he did a triple major in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. At the end of the 1960s, by now a psychology professor, he joined Stanford University, where he quickly designed and ran one of the most controversial experiments in history. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment and it partly answered the question he had posed as a young man.

Zimbardo was inspired by the famous Milgram Study, where pressure from a perceived authority figure had turned normal people into obedient followers who didn’t hesitate to administer electric shocks, despite the screams of the victims. In his experiment, he built on that, dividing a group of male students into prisoners and guards. Quickly, they fitted themselves into their new identity. The guards became less and less human, torturing prisoners, often without reasons, and with glee. They used their authority for all it was worth, while their victims started to behave like victims. They cowered and submitted themselves to their “bosses,” although they had signed a contract that allowed them to walk away at any time.


Concluding, Zimbardo’s argument was that evil is not always an active deed. It can also, and most often is, passive. Not acting, not standing up, can be as bad.


Even more interesting was that Zimbardo himself started to lose control of reality. As “superintendent,” he got so involved that he allowed horror to happen without intervening. Only when a colleague, who would become his wife, Christina Maslach, told him he was overstepping the mark and had “designed a breeding ground for evil,” he stopped the experiment. Later, much later, when the abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred, he turned both incidents into a book, The Lucifer Effect, where he argued that good and evil are not character traits, but depend on the situation an individual finds themselves in.

To Zimbardo, the biggest problem was “the sin of omission: the evil of inaction.” Standing by and doing nothing was a much larger moral problem than actively engaging in evil, he thought. Especially because on the “bell-curve of humanity,” explicitly evil people only make up a small percentage. Most of us are neither good nor evil, but something in the middle. Evil people need us, because without followers they are nothing.

As far as Zimbardo could see from the research, bystanders become monsters because of the situation they are in. And if they are not careful and mindful, those situations can put them onto what he called “the slippery slope of evil.” The first small step is easily taken. It is mostly a nasty remark, or the way you ignore somebody’s plight. Then follows dehumanization of others, de-individuation of yourself (“what can I do?”), abdication of responsibility (“not really my fault, others did things that were much worse”), obedience to authority, conformity to group norms, and passive tolerance of evil. Concluding, Zimbardo’s argument was that evil is not always an active deed. It can also, and most often is, passive. Not acting, not standing up, can be as bad.


While running away, he went back to save two classmates. When asked why, he shrugged: “I was hall monitor, it was my job to keep them safe. So, I did.”


So, now he knew, Zimbardo started to wonder if the opposite was also true. If bad behavior was contagious and situational, could good behavior be catching too? Would there be a possibility to design a “slippery slope of good,” something to counter the bad in the world?

Being an academic, he first went to look for research, until he realized that there was hardly anything on what made people good. As he had done throughout his career, his colleagues had focused on the negative as well. So when he started designing the Heroic Imagination Program, he had to start from scratch. What can we do, he wondered, to keep people from being seduced into evil, and how can we turn them from bystanders to, what he called, upstanders? Because that didn’t have the right ring to it, he re-christened them heroes: ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

One of the examples he presented during a Ted Talk was that of a small Chinese boy whose school had been hit by an earthquake. While running away, he went back to save two classmates. When he was asked why, he shrugged his shoulders: “I was hall monitor, it was my job to keep them safe. So, I did.” No cape-wearing ta-da, just a simple act of humanity that had turned him into one of many “quiet heroes,” as Zimbardo calls them.

We can all become members of that club. As long as we realize that you don’t have to be exceptional to be a hero, or even uniquely individual. According to Zimbardo’s HIP, there is a clear path to becoming one. The first step is to declare that you have started your journey towards heroism. With some training (provided by HIP, if you want), you can then become a hero-in-waiting, then a hero-in-training, and finally a fully-fledged hero. By daily deeds of service and building your heroic strengths and virtues, everybody can do it. And everybody can teach others. HIP has started the process, by offering training, funding, and encouraging research into what makes good people good and publishing online books and video games.

It has also just started a Heropedia, an encyclopedia of heroes. Everybody on the planet can nominate people to be included. If they are really special, they can also become part of HIP’s Hero-in-Residence Program, or become a Hero Evangelist.

Thankfully, Zimbardo is not alone. We recently saw the inaugural Local Heroes Ceremony during the program of hero-promoter James Valentine, of ABC Sydney fame. Two men received the Knight Commander of the Home award for fixing the shower rose. There were street awards and neighbor awards, for people who put out other people’s bins, and really nice and socially helpful food deliverers. My daughter would be delighted.


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Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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